Boston schools are getting a little help for challenged students. In 2009, the latest year for which figures are available, 76 percent of all students qualified to receive free or reduced-price lunches. Although poverty is a proven factor in reducing student achievement, Boston Public Schools is seeing the results of City Connects (CCNX)—its intervention, prevention and enrichment program that, for a decade, has worked with teachers to pair students with community-based services to help students better engage and thrive in school.
CCNX uses a systematic, scalable approach toward improving pupils' academic performance and significantly narrowing the district's achievement gap by matching them with organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters of Massachusetts Bay and Boston YWCA for after-school activities, and providing school-day services like speech or psychological therapies. "City Connects has helped our schools deepen their ties with the community," says Boston Public Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson. "This is a core goal of our acceleration agenda, the five-year plan that will turn every classroom into a challenging and successful place for children to learn. We need to support our students not just while they are in school, but all day long, both inside and outside the school walls."
Founded in 2001 by Boston College's Center for Optimized Student Support, which is a research center studying interventions that enhance the academic and healthy development of youth, CCNX was originally known as Boston connects when it only served six Boston Public Schools. This summer the program will be extended to Springfield, Mass., for a total of 23 Massachusetts schools. "I believe school districts need a systemic approach to student support that looks at the health and the family [of a student] and that utilizes existing structures" like schools and community programs, says Mary Walsh, CCNX executive director.
CCNX uses city schools and more than 200 community organizations to deliver tailored services to students. The tailoring starts with an intervention led by the school site coordinator (SSC), a trained social worker or school counselor who, along with the classroom teacher, evaluates a student. In part, they consider a student's academic, health and family strengths and needs; whether school- or community-based services could help the student; and if it's necessary to connect students and families with services.
If a student is deemed "at risk" based on the above factors, the student receives an "individual student review" (ISR) in which a team of professionals, including psychologists, teachers, principals, nurses and occasionally community agency staff members, reviews the student's goals and strategies.
Traci Walker Griffith, principal of Boston's John Eliot K-8 school, a CCNX school, recalls a male student who seemed so sleepy in class he had a hard time keeping his eyes open. Fearing learning or attention-deficit problems, the teacher requested an ISR. The mother took him to a pediatrician and found he was anemic. "Now he's in third grade and he's reading at grade level," says Griffith. "For me, it's looking at what's around a student, and all possible things that could help."
From 2001 through 2009-2010, students who had been enrolled in CCNX in elementary school had significantly higher Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System scores in English/ language arts and math in grades 6, 7 and 8. "City Connects is a powerful tool to target supports to the students and families who need them the most," Johnson says. "It builds the capacity for our entire school community to work together to get students ready to learn every single day."